Thursday, December 4, 2014

Last Chance Big Game

By Spider Rybaak

Ray Swope, 2012, New Haven (Third Largest Buck in NYS since 1939)

Deer are easiest to get on opening day, especially in the morning. Returning to the woods after feeding all night in the fields, they’re suddenly ambushed by legions of hunters who weren’t there the night before—or all year, for that matter.

The second best time to bag a buck is Thanksgiving. While the deer aren’t as careless--relatively speaking, of course--as they were on the opener, most guys get the holiday off and the massive presence of men in the woods keeps the critters moving, often right into someone’s sights.

After Turkey Day the pickin’s get pretty slim. You see, a lot of hunters indulge in the sport because tradition drives them to; and an equal number hunt for social purposes. For these guys, it only takes one time out to give them bragging rights for the year. Once that’s out of the way, they spend their leisure time in the living room, channel surfing the road to the Final Four.

Still, the crack of guns targeting big game rips through the silence of late autumn’s landscape until mid-December. Its source: lone hunters indulging the extreme challenge of pitting their personal intelligence and skill against the extraordinary senses and instinct nature has endowed wildlife with since the dawn of time.

Oswego County is one of the state’s best spots for solo, late-season big game hunting. Split almost equally into northern and southern zones, it boasts over 40,000 acres of public lands, mostly in the northeastern townships of Albion (Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area off NY 104), Boylston (Little John WMA, off CR 17), Redfield (Little John and Hall Island WMAs, Battle Hill and Salmon River State Forests, all accessible off CR 17), and Orwell (Chateaugay and Salmon River SF off CR 2).

Known for lake effect snowfall reaching in excess of 300 inches annually, this area is hard on deer. Only the strongest fawns survive, resulting in some of the biggest bucks in the state.  In fact, one of the largest bucks ever recorded in New York was taken in Oswego County.

Whitetails aren’t the only big game this area supports; black bear call these woods home, too.
New York has always boasted the largest population of bruins in the Eastern U.S., mostly in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. Recently, rangers have been monitoring sows with cubs (the state requires breeding pairs to be present in an area before listing it as bear country) in the Tug Hill Plateau Region.

To learn more about Central NY’s bruins, check out the DEC’s on-line publication “Black Bears in NY: Natural History, Range and Interactions with people.” If that plants the seed of bear hunting into your imagination, the DEC’s on-line publication “Hunting Bear in NY,” will show you how to do it.

Big game hunting season is rapidly coming to a close. The regular season closes on Dec. 7. However, special bow and muzzle loader seasons run until Dec. 14 in the Northern Zone’s WMU 6G, and Dec. 16 in the Southern Zone.

Image from DEC

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Early November Veterans Days

By Spider Rybaak
Disabled Warriors Fly Fishing

Oswego is one of the most patriotic counties in New York. Last weekend’s tribute to our Nation’s disabled warriors proves it.

The main event was a fly fishing outing on the Salmon River sponsored by Project Healing Waters Inc. ( Started 10 years ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, the group’s mission is “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”

As in the past, the outing was held in the restricted section of the Salmon River behind the hatchery in Altmar. Eighteen veterans and active duty personnel registered in sanctioned rehabilitation programs participated.

Fran Verdoliva, the state’s special assistant for the Salmon River, and coordinator of the event said:  “We had a lot of guys with prosthetic devices, including artificial legs, and most of them still waded out into the river. Three drift boats were available for those with mobility problems.”

And the fish were there. Every participant caught at least one, and many caught multiples.
John Patterson, a disabled Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, caught 8.

“While some veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan participated, this year is the first in which Vietnam War veterans made up the majority,” claimed Verdoliva. “They came from as far away as Binghamton and Rochester.”

Marine Corp veteran and motel owner Stan Oulette conducted a private veterans hunting event at his Deer Creek Motel and Pheasant Shooting Preserve (315-298-3730) on NY 3, a couple miles north of Port Ontario.

Stan has been inviting disabled veterans for free hunts on his property for years. He’s been able to accommodate amputees with an Action Trackchair generously donated to him by Paragon Medical’s Tobias Buck for use in his program.

Stan offers free hunts, complete with free lodging, to any veteran with a 30% or higher disability.
Besides pheasant hunts over trained dogs, Stan offers wild goose and deer hunting as well.

Fish On!
Daniel Morgan, a Project Healing Waters volunteer, holds a steelie caught by
First Sergeant Ira Strouse (not pictured) while Jim Kelso, a Vietnam Veteran, looks on.
Autumn Scene on the Salmon River

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More to Come

By Spider Rybaak

Ryan of Mayfield with a chromer he took at Ellis Cove.

Sour grapes have been grumbling--loud enough to be heard above the rapids, in fact--that the king and coho runs on the Salmon River ain’t what they used to be. Truth of the matter is the runs are as good-- some say even better--than ever. Problem is, the salmon seem to be evolving, getting smarter.
Fran Verdoliva, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Special Assistant for the Salmon River claims: “By last week, the hatchery has taken 3.9 million chinook eggs. Typically we only get 3 million per season.”

That suggests roughly 25 percent more fish are making it to the hatchery than usual.
“A lot of fish are moving at night,” claims Verdoliva, adding “each morning, the hatchery is loaded with ‘em, and has been all season long, so far.”

They’ve been running in daylight, as well.

“There was a pretty substantial run last month,” says Verdoliva. “We had a major run the second week of October and last week, too,” he continues, “and right now [October 20] the hatchery is overflowing with cohoes.”

And there’s more good news. “Everything was running progressively slower than people are used to,” says Fran, indicating there’s more to come.
As a rule, the major runs are over by now. Still, fresh fish will charge the river in spurts into mid-November, and late-maturing individuals will continue heading for the hatchery for the rest of the month, even into December.

The browns and steelhead are on schedule, too.

“There’s more steelhead here than salmon,” claimed an angler at Ellis Cove last Sunday, just as two kings porpoised at the end of the pool he was fishing. He had two nice chromers on a stringer to back up his words, rising kings notwithstanding.

And that’s the way it was throughout the river. Some kings were on stringers above Pineville, but the vast majority was catching steelies and browns.

Currently, your chances of catching eitherspecies are pretty equal. Football browns are common right now but will peter out by the New Year; Steelies will start dominating soon.

Like life, the only thing certain about this fishery is change.  And while some target a specific species and actually feel disappointed when they catch something else, most guys are more appreciative, feeling king, coho, brown or steelie, doesn’t matter: they’re all worthy opponents.

The egg sucking black stonefly Ryan used to nail his steelie.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Early Surfin’ on Oneida Lake

By Spider Rybaak

South Shore native John with a 26-incher he took last week

At certain times, Oneida Lake spits out walleyes like a conveyer belt at a fish factory. The tough part is figuring out when and where these sweet spots are from season to season. Right now is one of those times, and the sweet spot is the evening surf.

Walleye go on a feeding binge at the first sign of cooler temperatures.  Not a slight variation of a couple degrees, but a serious change, say 10 degrees or so. Most anglers don’t have the imagination to figure out when this happens and simply follow the old formula: surf for walleye from mid-October through November.

And while that schedule is a good one that’s been putting pike on the table for ages, it leaves a lot of prime time unexplored. What’s more, it has everyone fishing at the same time, leading to crowded, combat fishing conditions.

This year the bite has been pushed forward by a month. Indeed, early birds who have tested the water with their fingers have been taking walleye from the surf since early September. Indeed, I’ve caught my limit twice, and nailed at least one walleye, six nights in a row, before the second week of the month.

So why write about it now that it’s over, you ask?

Well, it ain’t over; in fact, it’s just begun.  There are a lot of walleyes where those came from--out in the deep, that is. September’s nights were colder than normal, and so are this month’s. As the trend continues, it’ll stir cooler temperatures deeper into the drink earlier than usual, keeping the bait and walleye close to shore.

In the past, you could expect a walleye or two every other night or so in the first half of October, and every night after that until mid-November, when the trend starts going the other way again.

This year they’re so early we’re getting limits before seeing our breath or having our fingers freeze. In the words of one guy, “It’s like getting eight weeks of vacation when you’re only entitled to six.”

What’s more, this year’s fish are bigger. I’ve seen several in the 22- to 24-inch range landed already, and personally nailed a 26-incher on the 1st of October.

If you’ve been dying to cast a minnowbait into the dark silence blanketing the lake but have waited for the traditional window, get your waders wet tonight.  The fish’ll be waiting for ya.

Good places to try are Phillips Point, at the end of McCloud Road in the Big Bay/Three Mile Bay Wildlife Management Areas (take Toad Harbor Road from NY 49 in West Monroe, then the next left), both of the NYSDEC’s fishing access sites at I-81, and the Cleveland Docks, NY 49, in Cleveland.

A good bait to use in weedy shallows is a Bass Pro Shop XPS Extreme Minnow; in slightly deeper water and over sandy or pebble floors, XPS minnows work, too, but so will  Jr. Thundersticks and Challenger Minnows.

Tom's good friend Kathy with a couple pike of her own.

Tom, an Oneida Lake resident, with a limit of walleyes he took from his dock last week.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Great White North

By:Spider Rybaak

Oneida Lake has a huge impact over Central New York. It’s so big, it creates its own weather; cooling temperatures along its shoreline a skosh during summer, warming them slightly in spring and fall, even creating early lake effect snows up until winter seals it in ice. Its influence is so pronounced, locals consider anything above it as “up north.”

That’s where you’ll find the Great White North Trading Post (315-964-2669), one of the most unique shops in Oswego County.

While it’s billed as a trading post, don’t go expecting to find items like rock candy, bags of salt or jars of pickled pork on its sagging shelves. Those days are gone.

What you’ll find is guns and ammo, fishing and trapping supplies, all set amidst museum-quality mounts of North American game animals.

Located in Williamstown, in the old Masonic Lodge, the shop looks like something straight out of a Civil War-era photograph.  In fact, owner Les Huntley boasts “The place hasn’t seen a phone in over 100 years; until I bought it.”

When you think about this corner of Oswego County, you usually have fishing and hunting in mind, ancient pursuits dating to the dawn of time. You could even say hunters and anglers are natural reenactors; the clothes have changed but the game is the same. As such, many are drawn to all things old.

This unusual shop fits that bill. What’s more, its location on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau exudes history, from the woods and fields surrounding Williamstown, to its priceless collection of old architecture.

A conservationist at heart, Huntley’s deep respect for history spurred him to preserve the building as a window into the area’s proud past. Indeed, as you walk through the entrance’s narrow double doors, you’re greeted with aging wallpaper and antique woodwork leading into a showroom whose very windows have wizened with time, growing capable of softening the brightest sunlight on a clear blue day.

Oh sure, the place has modern frills like electric lights, a computer, even a red, neon OPEN sign hanging in the window. Nothing flashy, just the practical kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a retail shop.

But that’s where the similarities to the franchise stores endlessly springing up out of the commercial landscape ends.  You see, the Great White North Trading Post prides itself in traditional values and common sense, American ideals you just don’t find too much anymore.

Run by Les and his wife Kim, the place doesn’t carry all the latest fads, only outdoor necessities at a fair price. Advice on local conditions is available free on request.

That might sound strange and quaint to some; but that’s just the way things are up north.

Kim Huntley issuing me a new fishing license.
Great White North's resident bear and racoon.
Hunting rifles and walking canes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Minnows on Streamers

By Spider Rybaak

Average Fall Fish
Swinging streamers through the current is an easy and exciting way to fish for salmonids. In fact, it’s so productive, a significant number of anglers working the fly fishing, catch and release section on the Salmon River Spey cast for kings and cohos right now, and for steelhead from next month through spring.

Developed in the Spey River region of Scotland, the technique involves casting flies for long distances with just two moves of the wrist. Done properly, the line slices through the air so precisely, casual spectators walk away thinking the angler is highly skilled in a mysterious form of fly casting.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While some practitioners think they’re the greatest thing since dyed wool, more realistic types know better; even describing their specialty as nothing more than glorified roll casting.

Indeed, you don’t even have to whip your rod back and forth to get the line out. Just drop the fly into the fast water and strip line out in time with the current, stopping when you feel there’s enough out to reacg the other side. As the streamer hits the end of the run, pinch the line against the rod with your index finger and whip it into the air with a powerful backhand motion. As the streamer flies past you, try to predict when it’s just upstream of your knee (the anchor point), flick your wrist so it faces the opposite shore and whip the line toward the other bank. When it lands, let the fast water straighten it out and swing the fly through the current while you hold the line in your fingers and follow it across the run with your rod tip.

When the fly reaches the end of the run and starts straightening out, brace yourself: the hesitation and change of direction spur a the majority of strikes—as much as 90% of ‘em. Always violent, the hit has spawned Spey’s most popular cliché: “The drug is in the tug.”

With a little practice, you’ll be able to cast your streamer 30 feet and more, with a couple flicks of the wrist. And that’s good if you’d rather fish than cast, your joints are wearing out, or you got arthritis.

While a 14-foot Spey rod and special line will enable you to reach distances approaching 100 feet, in most cases you don’t need to cast that far. Hell, often times you couldn’t even if you wanted to: from spring through fall, every yard on the Salmon River is precious and finding a productive, unoccupied 100-foot stretch all to yourself is wishful thinking. So, a regular 8-weight fly rod with a butt section (using both hands helps to reach the greatest distances) and a high capacity reel loaded with an 8-weight line or better, will do until you decide you like it and want to invest in the real equipment.

Perfecting your Spey casting skills in Oswego County is about as easy and exciting as it gets. While the lower Salmon and Oswego Rivers are getting too crowded right now, the Salmon’s upper branches (including the mouth of the discharge at Bennetts Bridge), the Mad River, and skinny streams like Scriba, Black and West Branch Fish Creek offer a lot of wide open rapids.

Equally important, all but the Oswego are loaded with fallfish (the Oswego has smallmouths), the most cooperative critters in fast water.

Decked out in large scales that shine like proof silver, the fallfish is America’s largest native minnow east of the Rocky Mountains. Averaging about 6 inches, specimens reaching over 20 inches have been reported. As eager to take a nymph as a streamer, a worm as a minnow, they’ve disappointed countless anglers who thought they were fighting a nice trout.

However, sensitive fly fishermen don’t hold it against them too long, and usually walk away from the encounters respecting the little guys for their violent strikes and spirited fighting abilities.

Some call ‘em chubs, others say they’re shiners. Most don’t know what they are…and don’t care.
But one thing’s for sure, they’re an integral part of America’s Northeastern streams. Most everyone who swings streamers through the waters pouring out of the Tug Hill Plateau has caught ‘em, and many are delighted they’re around because they can save the day when the trout have lock jaw.

While they’re a little strong for the delicate human palate, they’re the preferred item on a big trout’s menu.  And that’s good for trout lovers.

Large fallfish like this 15 incher are common; 20-something inchers are possible.
Fallfish hit streamers almost half their size.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bug Time

By Spider Rybaak

Bass bugs and poppers
Summer’s end shifts life into overdrive. It’s now or never for seasonal plants and animals, including insects. And while big, creepy, crawling things are enough to keep average folks away from unsprayed waterfront, bass, and the guys who chase ‘em, head for the bank.

You see, September’s nights are longer and cooler than July’s and August’s, stirring comfortable temperatures into the shallows, luring the game fish that split for the deep to escape summer’s heat. Back in their old turf, it doesn’t take long for them to resume feeding on the menu of delights that falls into the drink from the grass, bushes, and branches lining shore.

The commotion that a crawling or flying terrestrial insect makes in its struggle to stay afloat is like a dinner bell. The louder and sloppier it is, the more it excites the emotions of the pillars of the aquatic community living below. Indeed, a splash that would have spooked a hawg bass a couple weeks ago now draws him in to investigate. And if the source of the racket is winged, or hairy with legs hanging all over the place, the game fish will suck it in like an hors d’oeuvre.

While some of the terrestrial animals which large game fish find tasty are pretty big (snakes, young waterfowl, baby muskrats come to mind), the vast majority are much smaller, ranging in size from a yellow jacket to a mouse. Over the years, a class of lures has been developed to imitate hapless terrestrials trapped in the drink: poppers.

They come in two styles: deer-hair- and cork-bodied.

The former is generally made of bucktail shaped to resemble anything from crayfish and sunfish to mice. Cork-bodied varieties are about the size and shape of the bottom of a Hi-liter in the front, with the body tapering towards the back, ending in a tail of feathers. Both have flat faces so they gurgle and spit when retrieved; cork models have rubber legs protruding enticingly from the sides.

Poppers range from over an ounce to 1/32 oz.--even smaller.  Those running from 1/16 oz and less are too light to be cast with conventional fishing equipment. They’re designed to be worked with fly-fishing tackle.
Poppers are worked by retrieving the line in short (six inches to a foot), sharp jerks, stopping for a second or two every now and then to set their little legs in motion, giving reluctant followers a chance to change their minds.

Fishing with poppers is a very visual experience. Imagine jerking a spitting object over the surface. Suddenly, a swell appears behind the bug, followed by a mouth the size of a toy steam shovel sucking in the offering. Some fish are so enthusiastic, they jump clear out of the water when they hit, practically pulling the rod out of your hands.

Fly-fishing with large bass bugs requires a heavy line (at least 9 wt.) to carry the wind-resistant lure through the air. A classy Hardy fly- rod in excess of 8-feet long, with a matching Hardy fly-reel loaded with a Profile floating fly  line makes long distance casting possible.

Good spots to wade and fly-fish with bugs include Oneida Lake’s Phillips Point (Three Mile Bay/Big Bay Wildlife Management Area), Fulton’s Lake Neahtahwanta, and the pool at the mouth of Deer Creek (Deer Creek Wildlife Management Area). If you have a boat, Sandy Pond, the Salmon River estuary and any shallow, weedy area on Oneida Lake will lead to your fishing satisfaction.

Bass bugs and poppers are available at all bait shops, mail order houses like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, and major dot.coms like Amazon.

Fat rock bass taken at Hoad Harbor; note the popper's legs protruding from its gill plate
Hawg bucketmouth taken at Phillips Point, Oneida Lake
Pickerel taken at Cleveland Docks, Cleveland

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Kings are Comin’ Back to Town

By Spider Rybaak

Kings at Sunrise
Dick Stanton is one of the best charter boat captains on Lake Ontario. So when he looked me straight in the eye--as serious as death, I may add--and said: “Spider, the big kings are comin’ to the end of their cycle; they gotta come in,” I knew I had to go fishing with him to his sweet spot out in front of Oswego Harbor…And fast.

We arranged to go last Wednesday (August 20). Sue Bookhout, a writer I know from Cazenovia, came along; Mike Gagliostro, a real estate agent from Auburn, served as first mate. We launched Dick’s 10 meter Trojan (a sweet craft 33 feet long with a 13-foot beam) from Wrights Landing, 6 a.m. sharp.

“The bite’s been tough, lately,” Stanton admits as we’re heading out, blaming it on the weather. “We’ve had four or five days of pretty good wind, and it drove the temperature deep, 130 to 160 feet down.”

“So what’s the plan for today?” I ask.

“We’ll go see,” he replies. “We were 10 for 16 yesterday, including a 30-pounder, so we’ll probably fish the same way.”

Once past the lighthouse we head due north for a couple miles.

“There’s a lot of bait and fish out here,” Dick announces. “They’re from 80 to 137 feet deep.”

Mike goes to work setting out spoons and flasher/ fly combos on downriggers, and sets a couple on copper lines on planer boards.

About half an hour later, one of the rods goes off. Before anyone knows what’s happening, Sue’s on it like a bobcat on a cottontail.

The battle lasts a respectable 10 minutes or so and ends with an 8-pound king flopping around on deck. He hit a UV Gator Michigan Stinger, 110 feet down over 137 feet of water.

Dick continues heading north. About a mile later, something grabs the flasher/fly combo on the wire to the right. 
Five extremely exciting seconds later, the fish spits the hook.

After another mile or so we’re in over 500 feet of water. I’m thinking ain’t nothing out this deep. Boy was I wrong.

A fish hits so hard the boat shudders. Just like the first one, Sue’s on it like lightning. The beast is a big, stubborn cuss.

While I’m enjoying the spectacle, the rod right next to her goes off. I grab it and the fight is on. Well, sort’a. The fish tries hard, pumping this way and that, but never strips any line off the reel. I could’a swore it was a bullhead, but I know they don’t hit flies trolled 100 feet down over 525 feet of water. It ends up being a pee-wee king, the runt of his year-class.

I put the fish in our cooler while Mike sets the line back out. Sue’s still deep in battle. A few minutes later, the salmon comes in, a decent 19-pounder.

Before the slapping sound of our high-fives can fade into silence, the familiar sound of a drag starts screaming at us from one of the rods on the left. It’s another king; this one about 25 pounds.

And so it goes, over and over. 

Three hours later we decide to pack it in. Our score: seven for nine; six kings and a nice chromer.

Dick says that from now until the end of September, the salmon bite off the mouth of the Oswego River is “gonna be awesome.”

It’s already starting. Some of the lake’s largest kings and cohos are staging in the area in preparation for their spawning run up the river. Their pre-spawn feeding binge is legendary and they can put on more weight in the last month of their lives than they have all year.

Unfortunately, the feed won’t last long. Indeed, the majority of mature salmon will stop eating entirely by the end of next month, and become zombies, rotting on the swim. 

But that’s cool, too. You see, monster trout, and young salmon will still be around…And hungry.

For the fishing trip of a lifetime, contact Dick Stanton at (315) 685-0651 (h), or 246-4767 (c);

Sue with her biggest of the day
Spider holding the day's biggest king
The days only Steelhead

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Algae Blooms of Summer

By Spider Rybaak

Algae blooms don't stop fish from biting

Two of the state’s most productive lakes, Oneida and Neahtahwanta, are nestled in Oswego County. Their above average fisheries are attributable, in large part, to their shallowness, which allows the sun to warm them quicker, and reach bottom over a larger area than in neighboring bodies of water.

But all those wonderful factors breed a funky side, too: algae blooms.

Found in all stagnant and slow moving waters, algae are an essential part of the environment. Comprising one of the bottom links of the food chain, they’re the main dish of zooplankton, minnows, and tiny insects, which feed bigger fish, which ultimately feed man.

Come summer, however, high temperatures and intense light conspire with the carpet of nutrients on the lake’s floor to create ideal conditions for algae growth. What’s more, insecticides entering the water on run-off contribute to the devil’s brew by killing off vast numbers of the tiny animals that graze on the rootless vegetation. Next thing you know, there’s an algae explosion.

Like everything else that goes up, their numbers must come down; and always do in a spectacular die-off. Fortunately for Oneida Lake, it has a river running through it. When the bloom crashes, it’s quickly dispersed and swept downstream.

Lake Neatahwanta isn’t so lucky. Although it’s fed by a small stream and some underwater springs, evaporation draws off much of what flows in and there isn’t enough power left in the water to break up, let alone disperse, the thick film undulating on the surface like old split-pea soup with rancid pork. At this point, there are only two routes the dead algae can follow: decompose in place and sink to the bottom, or pile up on shore in jagged, blue-green cakes resembling dried river mud in a psychedelic nightmare.

According to Washington State’s Department of Ecology, pets and wild animals have reportedly died after intense exposure to algae blooms. And while people have been known to suffer bouts of stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting after swimming or water skiing in the stuff; and folks with a history of intense exposure--like drinking the water--have even come down with nerve and liver damage, there has never been a confirmed death of a human from algae bloom exposure.

So, while the lake smells and looks dead, it’s anything but. Terrestrial beasts and water fowl tend to avoid the liquid miasma because it can make them sick. But the fish don’t seem to mind a bit. In fact, the coating seems to provide shade from the sun, beckoning the fish close to shore.

Just about every lake angler with a few years of experience under his belt has come into contact with blue green algae. Many have even waded in it without any adverse effects.

However, public health officials worry blue-green algae can make you sick and suggest avoiding contact with it.  If some gets on you, they suggest you wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.

Use common sense - don’t drink water with scum floating on it, or any untreated surface water, for that matter. Be especially wary of water that looks like it has a blue-green paint slick on it, or looks like and has the consistency of split pea soup, and smells really nasty.

Close up of blue-green algae

Monday, July 14, 2014

Off the Wall Panfish

By Spider Rybaak

Josh, a resident of Hannibal, NY, with a rock bass he took off the Outer West  Breakwater

Oswego, the first port city on the Great Lakes, has three breakwaters protecting its harbor. Replaced and updated over the years, most recently in the 1930s, these concrete structures have been pounded for four generations by the elements. The outer west breakwater, the longest of the barriers, bears the brunt of the abuse.  Its decaying concrete, punctuated by huge holes punched through it by waves and ice, stands in silent testimony to how violent Lake Ontario can get when the wind hits her the wrong way. The only one of the breakwaters accessible to foot traffic, it stretches for roughly 2,000 yards, from the steam station (the two massive smokestacks on the city’s west side) all the way to the lighthouse, a fabulous structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city of Oswego owns the lighthouse and the Coast Guard operates it. And while the authorities would rather folks stayed off the structure leading out to it, a motley crew of individuals ranging from sightseers and lighthouse buffs to extreme joggers and anglers use the wall as an adventurous route to recreational satisfaction.

There’s really nothing preventing folks from venturing out on the breakwater. Signs posted on the path at the corner of the parking lot at the end of 6th Avenue warn of the hazards slippery and windy conditions pose. But you’re allowed to decide whether you want to risk going out there or not.

From autumn through spring, that’s a no brainer: conditions are generally so extreme, frigid whitecaps slam into the wall. If you’re walking on top of it you’ll probably get hypothermia in less than 100 yards, or, even worse, washed into the drink. And if you think you can beat the wind by walking the apron skirting the bottom of the barrier’s south edge, think again; even on mildly windy days Lake “O’s” waves grow high enough to wash over the top, soaking anyone down below.

Come summer, however, warm temperatures and a wealth of panfish translate into a fishing adventure gung-ho anglers can‘t resist. Most are creatures of comfort and never venture more than a couple hundred feet beyond the breakwater’s source.

They don’t have to.  “Lake perch entering the harbor from the west follow the wall,” says Oswego’s Rob Copeland. And this invariably brings them, likeminded lake smallmouths, even an occasional salmon, brown or steelhead right into the corner where the steam plant and breakwater meet.

“Schools of lake perch are unpredictable,” advises Copeland, suggesting when you hit them just right, you can catch fish till the cows come home. “But when they ain’t around, there just ain’t any around.”

Rock bass can always be counted on to come to the rescue, however. Spring sees massive quantities of the critters averaging about a pound swarm into the Oswego River. Indeed, the fishing is so magical in May, it’s become the stuff of legend.

 After spawning, most head back out for open water. Enough find the habitats in the relatively shallow shipping channel stretching from Wrights Landing to the powerhouse to their liking and take up permanent residence. “There’s so many,” claims Copeland, if you find them, you’ll catch one with every cast.”

One of the most productive spots is the small section of wall jutting due north from the western edge of the powerhouse, just before it banks to the right. Worms, minnows, crayfish and small lures all produce a lot of the feisty googleyes.

But even this close to shore, there’s always the chance a rogue wave can roar over the wall and sweep you into the drink. It’s a good idea to wear a flotation device whenever you’re recreating anywhere near the breakwaters…especially if you venture out a ways. Be safe, fish longer!

If you don’t mind struggling with brush, the shipping channel’s south bank, directly below Breitbeck Park is immune to unexpected wave action and offers the best northern pike and largemouth bass fishing in the city of Oswego. The channel hasn’t been dredged since tankers stopped delivering fuel oil to the steam station some 50 years ago, and a massive weed bed develops each summer. These alpha predators grow big on the cornucopia thriving in the thick vegetation.

The bass take spinnerbaits, YUM Dingers, wide-bodied crankbaits and swimbaits. The northerns respond to all the above except the stickworms, and also like buzzbaits and bucktail jigs. Dark colors like green pumpkin work best when the water’s murky; bright colors work best when it’s clear.

Josh's spot on the breakwater
Lake Ontario's waves easily pouring over the top of the Outer West Breakwater.
Rob and Melaina Copeland heading out to the Outer West Breakwater

Friday, June 27, 2014

Deep Summer Trophies

By Spider Rybaak
Monster Oneia Lake kitty
 Oswego County’s is one of the world’s best destinations for fresh water trophies. Contrary to widespread belief, however, all the hot spots ain’t on Lake Ontario. Indeed, Oneida Lake, the biggest pond in the state, offers anglers some extraordinary warm water angling, especially in deep summer.

Now, everyone worth his weight in bucktail jigs can tell you stories about the lake’s massive quantities of walleye. Those who like perch will add tales about the buckets full of 12 inchers that come out of the place, rain or shine, summer and winter. Even pickerel, one of the drink’s most delicious critters, are so cooperative, anglers who don’t have a clue on how the natural order works think the lake is infested with them.

Well, Oneida Lake isn’t infested with pickerel. It’s the most productive lake in NY, a veritable bait factory, and the pickerel, like walleyes, crappie, perch (white and yellow), largemouth and smallmouth bass, cormorants, blue herons, kids with worms, adults throwing Sonars, you name it, help keep fish populations in sync.

In other words, if there wasn’t a surplus of bait, you wouldn’t have so many pickerel and fishermen. Massive quantities of bait support great populations of game fish which in turn draw huge numbers of anglers. That’s how the natural order works.

While the pickerel, walleye and other usual suspects deserve the lion’s share of attention, the lake supports a wide variety of bottom feeders every bit as challenging to catch as the glamorous species.

Take catfish, for instance. Some experts consider them America’s most popular freshwater game. They’re popularly targeted in each of the Lower 48 states. Oneida Lake claims two of the most popular: bullheads and channel cats. Both reach trophy size around here: Bullhead will go 18 inches; channel cats can reach 20 pounds and better.

Both are fair weather species. The hotter the weather, the more active they are. Bullheads like to hit worms still-fished on bottom, while the catfish like cutbait or shrimp fished the same way. In summer, they like to hang out wherever deep and shallow waters meet; places like the public access sites at both ends of the I-81 Bridge in Brewerton, the Cleveland Docks, the municipal dock on the Oneida River a few hundred feet east of the US 11 Bridge, and the canal at the lighthouse park in Brewerton (just west of the CR 37/railroad crossing).

How about carp? This species’ popularity is booming. Indeed, travel agencies are making fortunes selling carp fishing vacations to Europeans and Asians. Local angler Mike McGrath, of McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services (315-882-1549), makes a good buck taking these clients on carp fishing trips of a lifetime.

Best of all, carp like all water: deep, shallow, muddy-bottomed, rocky, even weedy. They’ll hit kernel corn, bread balls, pieces of potato, and a mash experts like McGrath make with grains and syrups.

But if you just gotta get the popular breeds, the lake has the answer: it’s one of the hottest spots in the Northeast for summer black bass. Out in the lake, smallmouths hang out along the channel drops, weed edges, and dumping grounds (areas where debris was dumped when the canal was being dredged); and around docks and other man-made structures in the Erie Canal. Curiously, the lake’s largemouths hangout in pretty much the same places, only they’re more inclined to be closer to shore, in warmer, shallower water.

This weekend marks the state’s Free Fishing Weekend. It’s a great time to come up to the Oswego County communities lining the northwestern shore of Oneida Lake. Who knows, you might hook the monster you’ve been dreaming about.

Hawg bucketmouth caught off the municipal dock, Brewerton.
Hoping for a duckling dinner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Salmon River’s Hidden Gem

By Spider Rybaak

Capt. Rick with an average-size Salmon River Reservoir smallie
Separated from the Adirondack Mountains by the Black River Valley, the Tug Hill Plateau rises some 2,000 feet above sea level on its east side, and slides west, dropping to about 300 feet above sea level by the time it reaches the northeastern corner of Oswego County. Its harsh winter temperatures and proximity to Lake Ontario create lake effect snow, draping the area in 6 feet of powder during mild winters, piling more than 10 feet most of the rest of the time. Wikipedia reports the village of Redfield got buried under 141 inches of snow in a little over a week, February 3 -12, 2007.

All that water’s got to go somewhere. Some tumbles down the east slope into the Black River. A little even reaches as far down as Oneida Lake. But the greatest volume squeezes into countless streams and cuts a southwesterly course through “the Hill,” ending up in the Salmon River Reservoir, where the raging rapids are reined in, forming a peaceful body of water punctuated by numerous forested islands.

And it’s loaded with fish. Professional guide Rick Miick proved it to me a couple days ago.

Last Sunday he called to ask: “Spider, wanna go fishin’ with me and Stan in the Upper Reservoir for walleye tomorrow morning?”

“You bet’cha. What time?”

“Six a.m.,” he answered. “Meet us at the Jackson Road Fishing Access Site.”

We shoved off on time. Someone had stolen the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s nice aluminum dock, so I had to hold the boat in about two feet of water while Rick parked the rig. Then we had to get into the boat the old way: climb.  I almost made it the first try. But my old bones played a trick on me and the next thing I knew I fell backwards into the drink. The water woke me up quick and I was out before I could get totally soaked. Still, my back side dripped all morning.

We started by drifting around a few small islands near the launch, jigging bottom in 10 to 15 feet of water.

We didn’t get any walleyes, but some spunky smallies and rock bass kept us whooping and hollering.

Around 11 a.m., we figured we’d try the larger islands. When we reached the 50-foot depths off Huckleberry Island, numerous rings began appearing on the surface ahead of us. Rick slows the boat down a little to see what’s going on and we find ourselves smack in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Small fish are splashing carelessly like fingerlings in a hatchery at feeding time; but a good number are just kissing the surface like big fish do.

I surmise they’re walleyes chasing minnows. Rick thinks they’re trout. Stan doesn’t care what they are…he just wants to catch some.

I begin throwing a Berkley Atomic Teaser.  Rick starts casting a minnowbait. Stan’s drifting a worm below a bobber. The warm spring day is partly cloudy, wind’s low…life is good.

We spend the next two hours casting hard baits onto a gently chopping surface sprinkled with rising fish. We catch and release roughly 20 cookie-cutter smallies averaging 13 inches each.

Neither of us has ever seen anything like it before. Oh sure, we’ve had our thrills watching trout feeding during hatches; and schools of bass and walleye corralling and picking off bait; but never over such deep water, in such quantities for so long.

Rick tells me the place is loaded with walleyes and trout. Past experience has taught me it’s thick with rock bass and crappies. Now I know it’s loaded with smallies, too.

Also called the Upper Reservoir, the place has two DEC bank fishing access sites on Cty. Rte. 17 on the south side of Redfield. Bank fishing access is available off C.C.C. Drive. A site on Camp Road is suitable for launching car top craft, and the Jackson Road access site boasts a paved ramp and parking for about 20 rigs.

Captain Rick Miick can be contacted at 315-387-5920;

Camping for up to 3 days, for groups numbering less than 10, is generally permitted in state forests without a permit. For camping regulations, go to and type in camping on state land in the search bar.
If you like the comfort of light switches, hot and cold running water and flush toilets, try Stan’s Deer Creek Motel on State Route 3; 315-298-3730.

Stan with a nice rock bass he named Balboa

Monday, June 2, 2014

Oswego County’s Fast Waters for all Tastes

By Spider Rybaak
Rob approaching a promising log on Orwell Brook

Rob Barker has helped me with my kids fishing classes at Wellesley Island’s Minna Anthony Common Nature Center for the past five summers. He’s been especially useful in the fly-fishing section. When he informed me last fall he was thinking of retiring, I feared I’d lose a friend and trusted helper.

To my surprise, he called me in April, inviting me to go fishing for brookies in the wilds of northeastern Oswego County. I hadn’t fished up there in years, and decided this was the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with the fabulous menu of trout fishing opportunities this magical swath of New York offers.

We had to wait until the middle of May for the waters to finally go down enough to fly-fish. Our first stop was the stretch of Public Fishing Rights on Orwell Brook; more specifically, at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservations access site on County Route 52, north of Altmar.

Extraordinarily scenic, Orwell Brook slices through gently rolling hills. Only averaging three giant steps wide, it twists and turns constantly, digging out pools and undercut banks lined with brush and root balls. Broad stretches of shallow ripples punctuate its ideal trout habitats.

Unfortunately, we didn’t land any brookies. I had an 8-incher nail my nymph at the bend rounding a root ball, but it jumped immediately after feeling the hook, wrapped my line around a stick when it landed and got away. We did, however, catch several young-of-the-year native born rainbows.

Like all the area’s tiny creeks, some of the banks along Orwell Creek’s upper reaches are lined with brush so thick, that it covers the stream in long stretches of leafy cathedral ceilings. You’ll have to trudge quietly upstream, stooping most of the way, even walking on your knees in spots, but a well-placed fly under such difficult conditions will reward you with a trout decked in an aura of brilliance few people ever earn the right to experience.

A couple hours of struggling through the sinewy growth clinging to the brook’s banks does a number on an old man’s stamina, so Rob and I elected to try a stream that was a little more open. Since Orwell feeds the Salmon River, we had the perfect candidate just a few minutes south. We packed up our gear and headed for the special, fly-fishing only section on County Route 22.

Once again, water levels were perfect. We replaced our nymphs with stylized wooly buggers Rob tied and started swinging them across the current.

The pocket water along the massive boulders the NYSDEC placed to shore up the bank at the rapids upstream of the Paradise Pool rewarded our efforts with feisty, fingerling Atlantic salmon, brown and rainbow trout. The famous pool below gave us a few 8-inch fallfish that hit--and fought--as hard as trout twice their size.

Afterwards, we thought of trying Grindstone Creek, a brookie- and rainbow-rich blue ribbon trout stream that feeds Lake Ontario at Selkirk Shores State Park. But by the time we got to Pulaski, the sun only had about another hour‘s hang-time so we decided to try it another day.

Northeastern Oswego County is as close to wilderness as you can get in Central New York and one thing’s for sure: this country ain’t for the weak and lazy. But if you can handle the challenge of hoofing it through slippery terrain paved in sliding rocks, you’ll find solitude and beauty punctuated with trout that are the top of their class.

Each of these streams is thoroughly covered, complete with directions to access sites, in my newest book “Fishing the Great Lakes of New York: A Guide to Lakes Erie and Ontario, their Tributaries, and the Thousand Islands” (Burford Books, 224 pages, $16.95). They’re available at all the usual suspects. For signed copies, drop me a line at

Making his cast.

Fallfish may be small but they sure put up a good fight.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Oneida Lake’s Mixed Bags of May

By Spider Rybaak
Mark Yarema with the day's first pike.

Mike Yarema loves to fish for walleyes. He especially likes targeting them with jigs in relatively deep water. For the longest time, his biggest gripe was finding jigs that could stand up to the pressure.

His search for high quality bucktails that could survive a hard day in his hands on Oneida Lake, his favorite spot, led him nowhere. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he lost a few every now and then and had to replace them.

“You don’t lose jigs too often on Oneida,” he complains. “So at day’s end, a typical jig ends up with paint chipped off its head, even losing its hair.”

So what does he do? He starts making his own.

I met Mike last January while working on the last pages of my next book “Fishing Oneida Lake,” (Burford Press), due for publication early next year.  I still had a couple sections that needed tweaking, and the man’s knowledge of Oneida Lake pike and their habits proved extremely helpful. I took a couple of his jigs and planned on using them this spring.

Well, I forgot about them and fished the currents at the mouths of my favorite Oneida Lake tributaries on opening day with my usual curly-tail grubs and crankbaits. I did pretty good, catching my limit in the first couple of hours.

Surfing the web on the following Monday, I came across Dave Figura’s article on the results of the 36th Annual Cicero-Mattydale Lions Club Walleye Tournament on Oneida Lake on opening weekend. I read the results and learned 13-year-old Hunter Garrimone won the day with a 26 3/8 inch, 6 pound 7 ounce “eye” he nailed on an i1 Bait jig.

That’s Mike Yarema’s brand, I thought

Sure was. Mike calls me a little while later to tell me the story, ending the conversation by inviting me to go fishing with him.

At 5:30 Thursday morning, May 15, we headed out of Oneida Shores and hit the flats west of Frenchman Island.  The wind was blowing us steadily west as we began our drift. Me, Mike and his budy Mark Shea start throwing i1 Bait 5/8 ounce jigs in black and purple, working them slowly on bottom in 17 feet of water.

Mike nails a 20 incher on his third cast. Mark lands one a few casts later. About 15  minutes later it’s my turn to put one in the boat. Five minutes after that, I catch another.

Then the pike shut down.

We switched to blade baits and everyone started catching small perch. A couple hours of runt perch later, the pike turn on again and we all catch our limits.

We decide to try our luck on crappies and move to Big Bay. Everyone ties on a tiny jig. Mike and Mark tip theirs with spikes; I tip my Berkley Atomic Teaser with a red Honey worm.

Mike and Mark start the ball rolling with monster sunfish. I finally catch a big bluegill, followed by a bucketmouth.  Some crappies came around and we caught 8.

By 10:30 a.m, live well teaming with fish, we decide to head for home.

On the way back, I look at the i1 Bait jig Mike gave me and it’s as good as new. No chips on the finish, not a hair out of place. Even the steel leader attaching the stinger to the jighead are still in line.

i1 Bait jigs are made in Phoenix, NY specifically for Oneida Lake walleye, and are built tough to withstand the lake’s two biggest jig mutilators:  rocks and pike teeth. They cost a little more but they’re worth the added expense.

Check them out at

Mark with a crappie

Mike unhooking another one

Mark Shea's first walleye of the day

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kids Fishing Classes

By Spider Rybaak

Marshall, an associate of McGrath's, holding a Lake Neatahwanta catfish as his student looks on.
New York is etched in a fabulous web of fishing hot spots. But even fantasies have highlights, and the most exciting fishing destination in the Empire State is Oswego County.

Not just for trophy seekers, either. Granted, catching a walleye or brown trout big enough to hang on the wall is a common goal; but it’s at the end of the line, one of the final tests of an angler’s skills. 

And expert anglers don’t just appear out of nowhere -- It takes years of patience and practice, even apprenticeship, to fully develop fishing skills. And although some learn the game as adults, most trace their interest back to when they were kids.

Mike McGrath is a good example. Packing almost two generations of angling expertise, the man is savvy in all things fishy: from tying flies and fly-fishing for trout, salmon, northern pike and black bass, to trolling for muskies, jigging for walleye and bottom fishing for monster catfish.

With all that knowledge under his cap, you’d expect to find him chiseling out a name for himself on the marble column of the world’s greatest anglers; or at least living high on the hog competing in the tournament circuit.

But that’ll probably never happen. You see, this mild mannered Central New Yorker is a husband and father.  And like the countless other unsung heroes throughout history, McGrath couldn’t live with himself without donating part of his life to giving back. He does it by instructing someone else’s kids in the secrets of carp fishing.

McGrath’s choice of the species is simple. He knows that youngsters have short attention spans. Although catching panfish is fun, the thrill is often fleeting. On the other hand, when children catch carp, the experience is so intense it’s burned into their fondest memories, often hopelessly hooking them for life to the character-building sport of angling.

Watching the master spin his magic, observers often ask: “But why carp?”

When you get to know him, the answer becomes clear: McGrath is a man of the times. An unabashed internationalist, he specializes in this fresh water behemoth because of its worldwide appeal; it’s the most popularly sought fish in the Old Country. (The fact that the Oswego River drainage boasts one of America’s greatest populations of huge carp doesn’t hurt, either.)

Having served apprenticeships under European and Asian masters, Mike knows his game. Like a turkey hunter, he draws his quarry in close. Instead of calling the fish vocally (he has trouble vocalizing the gurgles and grunts of carp speak), he lures them in with his “10 pack,” a gob of grain bound by sticky stuff like bismuth that he “packs” into clumps the size of softballs and heaves into the water. As the pack slowly dissolves, its flavors are released, drawing carp and catfish into the area.

He’s good enough at it to turn a profit running McGrath & Associates Carp Angling Services. But he always makes time to teach, and pairs up with this writer regularly to offer free classes on local waters.

To see how McGrath does it, or to learn how to fish with worms or lures in my section, you are invited to attend one of our classes. See the schedule below:

May 10:  Oneida Lake Hatchery, NYS Rte. 49, Constantia; 
11 a.m.-1 p.m.

May 17:  Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

June 14:  Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

June 28:  Oneida Lake Hatchery, State Rte. 49, Constantia; 
11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

July 12:  Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.

July 19.   May’s Point Fishing Access Site, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, NYS Rte. 89;  11 a.m. -1 p.m.

August 9:  Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 
11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

August 16:  Great Swamp Conservancy, 8375 North Main Street, Canastota; 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

September 6: Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 
11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

October 18:  Lake Neatahwanta, NYS Rte. 3, Fulton; 
11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Mom and daughter admiring the child's first fish, caught during Spider's section of a kids fishing class on Lake Neatahwanta.

Mike McGrath unhooking an average-size Lake Neatahwanta carp.

Typical fishing class conducted by McGrath and Spider.